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Hey, Hey Woody Guthrie — We Celebrate Your Music, But We Do Not Celebrate Your Politics

Two questions remain about this article. The first is about Woody Guthrie, and deals with the question of what kind of a Communist he was, if he was indeed one at all. The answer to it is simple: Woody Guthrie was a Communist. In the 1970s, I was preparing an article for a now defunct magazine about Guthrie, and interviewed the late Gordon Freisen and Sis Cunningham in their New York City apartment, where they edited Broadside, a magazine dedicated to keeping alive the '30s topical song movement begun by the Almanac Singers. They told me that they belonged to the same NYC chapter of the CP, and with Woody, regularly went on to sell The Daily Worker on street corners each day, according to Party regulations for the chapter. Yes, they said, Woody sometimes did not like the assignment, and might dump the papers, rather than waste precious hours trying to do the impossible. An individualistic and irresponsible cadre, but nonetheless, a member.

In the '50s, when I took banjo lessons from Pete Seeger, his banjo case would be stuffed full of issues of the Communist paper. Why, I asked Pete, did he have a week’s supply of The Worker in the banjo case? He told me that while he was in the city, he would go visit Woody in the hospital where he was confined because of his Huntington’s disease, and would read him the issues aloud so he could keep up with the Party news and positions. Later, in a TV documentary made for British TV, Pete said proudly that “Woody and I were Communists.”

This is no big secret anymore, except -- evidently -- for those who still believe that unless one makes it clear he or she is a Communist to identify the person as one is Red-baiting. One would think that Guthrie would have proudly proclaimed believing in Communism, since joining the CP was the final step in affirming everything that he believed -- the need for the working class revolution that would usher in socialism, and the belief that the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin was the heartland and the leader of the coming world revolution that would usher in paradise on earth. He may not have been too good at carrying out the Jimmy Higgins nitty-gritty work required of a full-time professional revolutionary, but the Party always made exceptions on this account for its artists.

They could be used differently, putting their talent to work on behalf of using “art as a weapon,” as both Seeger and Guthrie often proclaimed it to be.  There is little doubt that Guthrie considered himself a Communist. His latest biographer, Will Kaufman, has written a book that seeks, as the publisher’s précis proclaims, to examine “Guthrie's role in the development of a workers' culture in the context of radical activism spearheaded by the Communist Party of the USA, the Popular Front, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.” One reader of Kaufman’s book makes the following comment on Amazon.com: “This book achieves its stated goal of restoring Guthrie's credentials as a political radical, specifically as an unwavering follower of the political line of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA). (my emphasis) For that scholarly achievement, I might give the book five stars. However, Kaufman not only documents Guthrie's political views, he often applauds them without submitting them to critical analysis.”

The author of that comment, Jeffrey Magill, also points out the following:

[Kaufmann] is unwilling or unable to explain how an apparently smart, compassionate person such as Guthrie could rationalize the many horrors committed by the totalitarian Soviet state. Although the CPUSA was often at the forefront of the civil rights, workers' rights and anti-fascist struggles of the thirties and forties, even when and where advocating for those causes was unpopular and dangerous, it was also quick to subordinate those struggles to the political interests of the Soviet Union when Soviet policy required it (e.g. during the period of the Stalin-Hitler Pact).Couldn't Guthrie have been a progressive without being an apologist for Stalinism?

Or, as the old story goes as told by Seeger, after they heard about the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which quickly put an end to the pact between Hitler and Stalin: One day at Almanac House, the name given to the community dwelling they lived in during the days before and after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Woody came in and said, referring to their recent album of anti-war songs, “Meet John Doe”: “Well, I guess we won’t be singing anti-war songs anymore.” And so they did not, quickly penning new ballads in support of FDR and military intervention on the side of the Soviet Union. The group also gave up singing those militant union songs that made them famous, as in their album “Talkin’ Union,” since the one thing the Soviets did not want was strikes that interfered with war production.